Biscuits, Butter, and Me
by Molly McConnell
Around 200 years before my family moved to Cleveland County, North Carolina, my great-great-great-great-grandfathers on my mother’s side were born in Randolph County, North Carolina. For them, it was the 1810s and a region dominated by agriculture. For me, it was 2010, the high summer of July, and I was about to start my sophomore year of high school. Months before, as my mother and middle brother and I exited I-85 North into Boiling Springs, North Carolina, I had grown apprehensive, and later in the week, my brother voiced my thoughts as we drove by my future high school: “I’m not gonna lie; that place looks like a dump.”
The south wasn’t a new concept or even a new place to me or my family, but when I sat in a class and the professor asked how many of us who had grown up in the south identified as southern, at least half of the hands, including mine, dropped.
I had lived in South Carolina and Texas before North Carolina, both of the former southern, or mostly southern, states. We didn’t look southern, though, which is to say we didn’t act southern according to southern stereotypes, and I did not hear my parents ever identify as southern. To me, southern meant guns and camouflage and trucks and Confederate flags and racism and antiquated thinking and fat and humidity and “sittin’ a spell” and sweet tea and debutantes and never leaving the place you were born and home cooking like fried okra and cornbread and fried chicken, all the time. But growing up, I remember eating Pillsbury biscuits.
My mother stood at the counter with the blue tube in her hand, banging it on the edge of the Formica countertop there in the kitchen in the house in South Carolina, and the tube split open to spill out rounds of dough pocked with chunks of yellow butter product or greasy with flaked layers. She’d place the rounds on her round stoneware pan, bake them, and we’d eat them with dinner, usually slathering Country Crock butter product onto the two halves, sometimes eating the halves separately, sometimes mashing them back together, a biscuit-butter-biscuit sandwich. We always had a bread with dinner, but muffins, usually, never cornbread, and if biscuits, always Pillsbury.
It is neither of my parents’ faults we didn’t eat the foods of the South. My father grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, which automatically exempts him from knowing traditional southern foodways. My mother was born in Lumberton, North Carolina and though she didn’t move from the state until she and my father moved to Germany in the late 1980s, her mother did not cook Southern food. She didn’t cook much, period.
A woman whose ancestry traces back to Yadkin County in the 1820s, my grandmother was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1936. She attended Mars Hill College, as it was called then, and met my grandfather while she was living back in Winston-Salem. He was born in Level Cross, North Carolina in 1932 and grew up on a farm. He watched his father die of cancer there, his siblings having already left. His ticket out of Randolph County was the army: my grandfather fought in the Korean War, though in Germany. Afterward, he and my grandmother got married.
She worked as a receptionist while he attended North Carolina State University, and from there, they moved to Lumberton, where my mother and her brother were born, and then Raleigh and finally Charlotte for his banking career with a different sort of southern trinity: First Union and Wachovia and Wells Fargo. Though they had plenty of money, my grandmother worked as a receptionist, even though she had two children. This was the early 1960s, and an optimist could interpret her life as a foray into the new world of being a modern woman, having a job, having it all: a husband, children, a job, a house in the nice part of town, and though she might have acquired it after that particular time, a standing hair appointment with her hairdresser every Friday morning.
My mother recalls processed and packaged foods, like stovetop stuffing or “Chinese in a can,” thrown together when my grandmother would come home from work tired and ready to take advantage of the new products available in grocery stores. An occasional roast, with potatoes and carrots, would be left to cook while the family went to church, but traditional southern dishes were not the norm in the house in south Charlotte. My mother never learned about southern foodways; the family was detached from them. They did not eat of the land, nor did they eat much homemade food. Their table boasted the convenience of the new American grocery experience, not the tradition of the agricultural south. After leaving the farm, my grandfather did not go back, except in the stories he began to tell as he aged, which led my mother to question if he was developing Alzheimer’s disease.
My foray into the world of southern food, an easier way to convert to the church of the south, began with pie dough. That cutting of butter into flour with a pastry blender, though – not with two knives, as I saw my mother do occasionally when I was a child – led me into biscuits. The first biscuits I remember making were not the plain buttermilk biscuits made by feel with lard, but studded with chunks of Gruyere cheese and threads of caramelized onions. I’d found them on a food blog I followed, Smitten Kitchen. I was home from school my sophomore year of college during Valentine’s weekend, just for Friday night, because I was tired of having a long distance relationship and wanted to be in the comfort of my home. My parents and I ate the biscuits with Ina Garten’s Mustard-Roasted Chicken.
I fell hard for biscuits, those and the many that followed. Buttered pecan biscuits. Cheese biscuits. Biscuits made into sandwiches at restaurants. And then, pure buttermilk biscuits. I had loved the Pillsbury biscuits my mother made when I was young, but these were different. They tasted like real butter, and the layers in the biscuits were not the product of a machine, but of my own hands.
Because my family did not eat traditional foodways, instead eating stringy baked chicken breasts, canned fruits, and the occasional seasonal vegetable from my father’s summer garden, I lacked a culinary heritage. I lacked place. I lacked a teacher. As Natasha Trethewey said in a writing workshop Q&A session, you “can be from a place but not of that place.” I was not of the south, and at times, I did not want to be.
I saw Confederate flags, and I sat in a United States history class in high school in which I was the only student who felt that the South – capital S because they saw it as an autonomous region – would not “rise again.” In that same high school, white girls were looked down upon for dating black boys. I asked my own parents about it when it looked like it might happen. “What would you do if I started dating a black boy?”
My father stood still, stopped his searching through the pantry, and didn’t say anything for a minute. “I’d have to get used to it,” he said. My mother warned me to think about the consequences. “White boys won’t look at you the same if you do that,” she said.
And that’s southern food. Racism folded in with love like butter into biscuits. It’s not just an analogy, either. Food and race in the south have been linked since colonists came to America and disrupted traditional Native American foodways. Southern food as it is known today is a mixture of European foodways and practices, Native American foodways and practices, and African foodways and practices. Traditional foodways is a term that in the south requires dissecting and unfolding. What I thought was southern food was a mess of history thrown together in a pot and an expectation of layers of flavor to provide something tasty.
But before I learned southern food, I learned food. A friend leant me her copy of Michael Pollan’s An Omnivore’s Dilemma our freshman year of college. After that, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. The foods I saw in the dining hall began to be marked with miles traveled from their source, and I had my first taste of collard greens. Dark, bitter, green. The same friend who had leant me her book ate a vegetarian lifestyle and took me to the local farmers’ market, and because of that, I began to pay more attention to where my food was being grown – and by whom.
As my love for biscuits and tomato pie and sweet potatoes – southern mainstays – grew, I turned to a culinary trinity of southern food: Edna Lewis, Bill Neal, and Vivian Howard, the three chefs I knew best who cooked southern food as people said it was supposed to be. I read Edna Lewis’ essay, “What is Southern?” I read Bill Neal’s cookbook, Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie. I watched Vivian Howard explain native ingredients in eastern North Carolina. I listened to a woman tell me how to cook turnip greens as I sampled her pickled okra. I took classes on the south and its traditions and history and practices, especially the foodways. For a final project one semester, I wrote a report, complete with comparison recipes from various southern chefs and food figures, about sweet potatoes. Those were easy. Biscuits required more finesse.
I ate a lot of biscuits at various places around the state, including sweet potato biscuits, looked at cookbooks and recipes online and read about what kind of flour southern cooks prefer – apparently White Lily, which I remember my mother buying at the local Food Lion when I was little, but I don’t know if she bought it for this reason or because it was on sale. I could never bring myself to buy pure lard to experiment, sticking instead to the butter I knew.
But never did I ask my mother or my grandmother about biscuits. Never did I try to figure out the proportions on my own. Instead, I stuck to recipes I liked best, ones that were not even made by southerners. I landed on buttermilk biscuits made by Joanne Chang, a Bostonian by way of Houston, Texas. Maybe, as a professor suggested once, every place has a south. Maybe he was right. Biscuits all have a piece of the south in them, no matter the geography of the recipe creator.
I was one of three children. I lived in three southern states. I looked to three great southern chefs. The trinity is that of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, but the great triumvirate of southern food is meat, meal, and molasses. That’s what scholars say. That’s what history says. I wasn’t raised in that church, though.
I converted to the trinity of flour and butter and buttermilk. I could expand my tastes, say my trinity is sweet potatoes and biscuits and tomato pie, but that would be like telling my parents I believe in Mt. Olympus and have acquired an entire pantheon of gods. A trinity is a beginning, not the end product.
I do not follow the traditional biscuit-making practices of my family and stand at the counter in my kitchen, banging a blue tube against the edge to pop it open and let greasy rounds of dough spill out. I stand at the counter and cut a stick of butter into chunks. I whisk the flour and the baking powder and the baking soda and the sugar and the salt together, a small white mountain in the big glass bowl. I throw the chunks of yellow butter into the mountain, and they sink deep. The pastry blender tries to cut them into pea-sized pebbles, which is what most recipes recommend, but I am impatient and begin using my hands to squish the butter into the flour like feathers. And then I pour in the buttermilk.
Once the ingredients are combined, I roll the dough and fold it. Roll, fold, turn. Roll, fold turn. I do this at least two or three times. Sometimes four. It creates layers in the dough that once baked, flake and pull apart. The squares bake in my stoneware baker pan, its surface smooth from many uses and all of the oil and butter building up into a seasoning. The butter hits the hot oven and begins to melt, creating pockets of air in the biscuits, but also pools of it in the pan. The biscuits emerge from the oven swimming in bubbling, melted butter, and I spoon some of it over their tops, hoping it will soak in.